It's hard to remember the last time an ombudsman created this much of a flap all on their own, but The Washington Post's Deborah Howell seems to have touched off a real firestorm within her own news organization with last Sunday's column. In the midst of explaining that The Washington Post's print edition and online offerings are actually operated by separate companies and describing ways in which the two relate, Howell dropped this nugget:
Political reporters at The Post don't like WPNI [Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive, aka the Web site] columnist Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing," which is highly opinionated and liberal. They're afraid that some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter.That led Froomkin to respond:
John Harris, national political editor at the print Post, said, "The title invites confusion. It dilutes our only asset -- our credibility" as objective news reporters. Froomkin writes the kind of column "that we would never allow a White House reporter to write. I wish it could be done with a different title and display."
Regular readers know that my column is first and foremost a daily anthology of works by other journalists and bloggers. When my voice emerges, it is often to provide context for those writings and spot emerging themes. Sometimes I do some original reporting, and sometimes I share my insights. The omnipresent links make it easy for readers to assess my credibility.And more Froomkin
There is undeniably a certain irreverence to the column. But I do not advocate policy, liberal or otherwise. My agenda, such as it is, is accountability and transparency. I believe that the president of the United States, no matter what his party, should be subject to the most intense journalistic scrutiny imaginable. And he should be able to easily withstand that scrutiny. I was prepared to take the same approach with John Kerry, had he become president.
The journalists who cover Washington and the White House should be holding the president accountable. When they do, I bear witness to their work. And the answer is for more of them to do so -- not for me to be dismissed as highly opinionated and liberal because I do.Now, that has led to a mini-explosion of Froomkin-fretting. Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker addressed the matter in a Post chat today:
Let's make sure there's no confusion. There shouldn't be any debate about that. We don't put Richard Cohen or George Will on the front page, we put them on the op-ed page where everyone understands what they write is based on their own opinions. The web site is less clear simply because we don't have the traditional design of the newspaper with a front page and an op-ed page.Editor & Publisher reports today that Froomkin's "White House Briefing" column will not be re-named:
After two days of controversy, several newsroom staffers at The Washington Post, including Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., said today they do not object to online columnist Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing," which has sparked a debate over its title and its alleged liberal content. But they contend that it should be clearly labeled an opinion column and urged Web editors to change the name.But …
Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady said he does not plan to change the name, claiming it has not caused the misinterpretations that some believe it has. "The column has been on the site for two years and that is not something we have heard," Brady said about concerns. "The column is extremely popular and it is not going anywhere."Meanwhile, BuzzMachine's Jeff Jarvis sees the episode as one more example of the triumph of the Web over newspapers. He points to Howell's contention that the online Post has a bigger overall audience than the print edition and concludes:
The audience has clearly shown its support for the online Post over the printed one; the only reason online is not as successful is because advertisers are even more behind than newspaper editors. And the audience has clearly shown Froomkin their support. Perhaps the paper should be doing more of what he does. Did you ever think of that, o, vaunted newspaper editors?Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall thinks it's much ado about nothing:
With all that has happened to journalism and this country in the last three years -- or perhaps just the Post in the last few weeks -- is this really all the Post's ombudsman can think to concern herself with?While it's slipped a tad during the day, "Froomkin" was still the 10th most searched topic on Technorati and there is no shortage of opinion on the flap. Whether Howell had more important topics to address or not, she certainly found one that plenty of folks want to talk about. Isn't that part of her job?